Photo of the Indigenous peoples’ march in 1976. On the boards: Indianen kunnen niet langer wachten / Indigenous people can wait no longer & Wij willen onze woongebieden in eigendom / We want private property.
Photo Credit: Cary Markerink
The 150-kilometer-long Indigenous peoples’ march from Albina to Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, on December 28, 1976, was the first time that this group brought the issue of land rights directly to the Government of Suriname with the slogan “Land rights are human rights.” The march lasted for four days and was carried out by about 50 Indigenous men and women. However, 44 years later, Indigenous people and tribal communities in Suriname are still fighting for recognition of their land rights.
Indigenous and Maroon societies
Indigenous people and Maroons, descendants of Africans in the Americas who formed settlements away from slavery, and often mixed with Indigenous populations, comprise the main tribal groups of Suriname. In addition to the enslavement—and deaths—of Indigenous people during the 16th century colonization of Suriname, many Indigenous communities fled deeper into the Surinamese rainforest. In 1686, after years of war with the colonial rulers, Indigenous people and the colonial government signed a peace agreement. Today, there exist five Indigenous groups in Suriname, whose villages are located in the coastal and southeastern areas of the country.
As groups of Africans were brought to Suriname as slaves, some of those being transported were successful in their attempts to escape and began new settlements in the interior of Suriname. These runaways became known as Maroons. After failed attempts to fight the Maroons, the colonial government decided to make peace with several of these tribal groups. The first peace treaty was signed with the Ndyuka Maroons in 1760, followed by one with the Saamaka Maroons in 1762, and another with the Matawai Maroons in 1767. These peace treaties gave the Maroons a freedom of residency in the Surinamese interior, and the ability to maintain their own government system based on a matrilineal kinship system, tribal religion, and culture.
Conflicting views on land rights
The Surinamese rainforest is not only home to Indigenous and Maroon communities, but also home to almost 90 percent of the country’s natural resources. Although the habitat of the Indigenous peoples and Maroons is one of the richest regions in the world in terms of natural resources like gold, minerals, bauxite, hydroelectricity, and timber, the welfare and living standards of its inhabitants are not nearly as sought after. To this day, Suriname’s interior stands as the most underdeveloped region in the country. The fact that the interior population is marginalized and that their land rights are not yet recognized has led to growing initiatives from various groups to obtain recognition of the land rights of these populations. Such efforts were particularly stimulated by the fact that Suriname’s land law (Decreet Beginselen Grondbeleid, SB.1982 no. 11) states that all land—that is not the private property of an individual(s)—belongs to the state. This means that the land where native groups have lived for decades also belongs to the government. However, the tribal groups argue that based on their customary rights, they are the owners of the territories in which they have resided for decades. Their arguments are supported by several international conventions and treaties that have been signed by the Surinamese government.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, also known as the Human Rights Treaty of 1976, was ratified by Suriname on December 28, 1976, emphasizing the right of self-determination. It was also on this date that Indigenous peoples from the east of Suriname began a march to the city in order to draw attention to their rights to the land.
According to the Maroon governance system, their territory is divided among the clans (or Lo’s) that form the tribe, with each clan possessing rights over their designated area. This system is a particular source of conflict, as it raises questions over who is entitled to grant concessions of natural resources in Maroon-inhabited land. Is it the state authority or the traditional Maroon leaders? In the gold mining sector, several conflicts have occurred because both the government and the Maroon authorities have issued concessions in-line with their respective laws, consequently granting different people the same power. However, there have also been instances where native communities are not even aware of the fact that their land has been issued by the state. For example, in 1994 in the Maroon village Nieuw Koffiekamp, located in the district of Brokopondo, a concession—known as the Rosebel Gold Mines—was issued to the Canadian gold mining multinational company, Golden Star Resources, without the knowledge of the villagers. After these Maroons learned about the concession, several conflicts occurred between the company which has had several owners over the years. It was not until November 2017, that IAMGOLD, and Makamboa, the advocacy organization of the Nieuw Koffiekamp gold miners, signed an agreement that allowed Makamboa members to mine for gold in a specific section of the Rosebel Gold Mining concession, named Romapit. Although this agreement has resolved some of the problems of the small-scale gold miners, still others are illegally venturing onto this gold mining concession. However, the Nieuw Koffiekamp villagers still suffer from blasting near their community and severe restrictions on their access to the forest and its resources, including areas for subsistence plots, hunting, and collecting of non-forest products.
Attempts to solve land rights issues
One of the first times that attention was paid to the land rights of Indigenous people and Maroons in Suriname was in the Agreement for National Reconciliation and Development 1992, originally signed to end the civil war that had begun in 1986. Article 10 of this peace treaty states that the government should provide individual land titles, and set up economic zones in the areas surrounding the villages in order to stimulate economic activities including small scale mining, fishing, and hunting.
The establishment of the foundation of The Association of Village Chiefs in Suriname (VIDS) in August 1992, with the objective of achieving legal recognition and protection of Indigenous land rights, was a structural step toward achieving acknowledgement of Indigenous peoples’ right to the land. From then on, a number of meetings were held between Indigenous peoples, Maroons, and state authorities to solve land rights issues. Several initiatives developed including the Commission for the Inventory of Land Rights and Concessions of Surinamese Tribal Communities (1992), the Commission on Domain Land of Indigenous People and Maroons (1996), the Basic Orientation Agreement (Buskondre Protocol) (2000), the Presidential Commission on Land Rights (2006), the Special Presidential Envoy on Land Rights Issues (2013). Nevertheless, such actions have yet to yield the desired results to resolve land rights issues.
Challenges concerning land rights in Suriname have also been raised to the international stage, as can be seen in the Case of Moiwana Village, which was filed by the Inter-American Court (IAC) on Human Rights against the Surinamese state for the military-led killings in the Maroon village of Moiwana during the civil war. Then again in 2007, the Association of Saamaka leaders brought the Surinamese state before the IAC for violating the land rights of Maroons, and the IAC ruled in favor of the Saamaka Maroons, concluding that Suriname had violated the rights of the Saamaka people, and was ordered to establish a legal and regulatory framework that would permit recognizing tribal peoples’ right to collective ownership of designated lands, territories, and natural resources. Also, in the 2015 Kaliña and Lokono case—Indigenous peoples of the Lower Marowijne River in Suriname—the IAC rules similar as in the Saamaka case.
The future of Surinamese Indigenous and Maroon land rights
Despite these court rulings, there remains no legal recognition of the land rights of Indigenous people and Maroons in Suriname. However, the government has taken steps to acknowledge the rights of these groups. Notably in 2019, a constitutional amendment and a draft Law on Collective Rights of Indigenous people and Tribal groups) were composed by a land rights management team consisting of representatives of the government and traditional communities of Indigenous people and Maroons. The draft specifically addresses the collective rights of Indigenous people and Maroons, specifically their right to self-determination, culture and cultural integrity, land law, participation, Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC), traditional knowledge, and benefit sharing. Additionally, the law also addresses the composition of traditional authorities, collective property rights, and the rights of third parties. The law was submitted to the Surinamese parliament on April 8, 2020, but failed to be addressed because of the elections that were held on May 25, 2020. The constitutional amendment and draft law on land rights is now on the agenda of the newly elected parliament.
Land rights in Suriname have been on the political agenda of several Surinamese administrations, but Indigenous and Maroon communities in Suriname continue to look for ways to officially achieve acknowledgment of their rights to the land they have inhabited for centuries. These inexhaustible efforts of the traditional groups, on both national and international scales, has not yet been successful. However, the formulation of a draft legislation on land rights and the proposed constitutional amendment offer a new hope of achieving their goals. Much lies in the courage of policymakers to legally establish these long-sought rights of the Indigenous and Maroons, but history has shown that no matter what the outcome of the current propositions, these groups are prepared to continue their fight.
Ine Apapoe is a public administrator and a head of the Public Administration Department at the Anton de Kom University of Suriname teaching integrity of governance. Currently she is finishing her dissertation at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Ine’s research is about the role of good governance in dual governance structures in Suriname.